Grupo Folklorico Los Laureles conserves traditional Mexican folklorico dance and culture

Grupo Folklorico Los Laureles in San Jose is a dance academy and professional dance company co-founded by Ashley Lopez-Gonzalez and Cesar Gonzalez. They started in the summer of 2007, teaching children and adults the traditional Mexican folk dances in which they had both trained.

At the age of 18 Cesar Gonzalez began studying under the late Ramon Morones, pioneer folklorico instructor in San Jose. Gonzalez studied dance technique, state history, and choreography, and then joined Soles De Mexico de San Jose, a professional Mexican dance group under the direction of Morones. In the summer of 2007, Cesar was interested in passing on his Mexican culture to his little sister Xitlaly, who was studying Mexican folklorico with another organization. He wanted to teach her the traditions the way he knew them instead.

“It started just for fun in the backyard with 12 family members and their friends, just little kids,” says Gonzalez. “We did a small performance and the kids loved the reaction of the crowd. We actually liked the reaction of the kids – they were so excited – and we fell in love with it, so we started offering more classes.”

Gonzalez’s wife and Grupo Folklorico Los Laureles co-founder, Maestra Ashley Lopez-Gonzalez, has been studying dance since she was just three years old. At age 16 she also joined Soles de Mexico, and began studying under Morones as an apprentice at age 17, learning state repertoire, choreography elements, outfit reproduction, and correct instructional elements.

Together Ashley and Cesar have many years of folklorico dance study and professional dance experience, as well as a passion to share the knowledge of these very traditional Mexican dances with new audiences – particularly with younger people, who might only associate more modern dances like salsa and merengue with Mexican culture.

The folklorico dances have histories spanning hundreds of years, dating all the way back to the earliest indigenous cultures and developing through African and European influences. Waves of nationalism kept Mexico’s folk dance tradition thriving for generations, particularly during the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century. Folk dance is considered an integral part of the Mexican national identity, so much so that the Mexican government has previously subsidized folklorico programs on the basis of their aesthetic and social value.

The Gonzalezes offered group classes in Cesar’s parents’ backyard for about six months in 2007 until they were getting as many as 70 kids and people started asking them to also teach adult classes.

“It got to the point that we got too big and we ran out of space,” Gonzalez says. Luckily San Jose’s Moviemento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), a contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience, had some extra space they could use, so they set up a dance studio inside MACLA in 2008.

Los Laureles has since grown to include two performing companies – one juvenile and one adult – with 120 dancers, as well as offering adult beginner classes and several levels of youth classes.

The companies perform at a variety of major events around the Bay Area, including events for the Super Bowl, the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco Giants, private events for Fortune 500 companies like Google and HP, parades, and cultural festivals.

Gonzalez says Los Laureles is able to distinguish itself from other dance companies in the Bay Area because they focus specifically on traditional Mexican dances and stay very true to those traditions, right down to the era-appropriate costumes.

Los Laureles dancers have between four and eight performances per month and ten or more per month in the summer. They also do two or three large-scale productions per year, a full two hours of telling stories through dancing. Each production is new, covering the traditional dances of different states throughout Mexico.

“We don’t do the same production over and over again,” says Gonzalez. While they might keep one or two of the same pieces from one production to another, their focus is on conserving as many traditional pieces as possible.

“A lot of organizations just focus doing their own choreography,” he says. “Most are modern or do their own way of what they think is traditional, but we don’t do that. We’re a traditional group and we’re focused on conserving the dances danced in the 1950s and ’60s,” those danced by their parents and grandparents and the parents and grandparents of the young people they reach through their classes and performances. They don’t do any of the contemporary dances like salsa and merengue; only Mexican folklorico.

Part of this staying true to traditional Mexican folklorico is to also provide a certain amount of folk history education beyond teaching and performing the dances themselves. They aren’t just performing traditional dances; they are presenting pieces of Mexican history and the country’s everlasting cultural legacy.

With that in mind, they try to bring some of that cultural learning into their productions. They might introduce the group with a video of dancers from the different regions in Mexico they’re covering during the show, or screen a short documentary on the people who live in those areas.

“It brings back memories to the people who used to live in Mexico but now live here, and it also teaches the second and third generations about how those people used to live in Mexico, about the stories and traditions they had in Mexico,” says Gonzalez. He especially loves seeing their performances build connections and new understandings between grandparents and grandchildren.

“We try to teach them all the traditions of Mexico during those eras. By doing that we’re not just catering to the younger crowd but also to the older crowd who is teaching their children and younger generations that history. We cater to older people who used to live in Mexico and identify with the dances because they used to dance them.”